Studying Narratives in Small Spaces, Part 2

At the Augmented & Virtual Reality roundtables at GDC 2015, there was consensus that moving a player through space made them uneasy. While in the future, I’m sure we’ll discover interesting tricks to ease the transition, what if we aren’t worried about that, and instead an entire interactive narrative experience happens in a single space?

This multi-part series examines inspirations for interactive narrative design in small spaces. These reviews are going to at times sound oddly mechanistic, as the goal is to focus on moments of potential narrative agency and player interaction. There is a separate movement towards Virtual Reality film, where one would semi-passively take in narrative in a virtual environment, but, as usual, I’m more interested in the interactive stuff.

In this part of our ongoing study, we look at 3 films that take place on boats. Life of Pi, Kon-Tiki, and Lifeboat.

Life of Pi
life of pi above
Life of Pi is the story of a young, religious Indian man shipwrecked on a lifeboat with several dangerous animals, including a Bengal tiger. All the other animals die early in the narrative, leaving just the tiger and the young man aboard the boat. Scared of the tiger, the young man builds a separate raft out of paddles and life jackets, but still connected to the main boat by a rope.

Kon-Tiki is a documentary of the 1947 building and sailing of a raft from Peru to Polynesia by 6 Norwegians. The goal of of the voyage is to prove that it was possible for ancient Peruvians, using only a raft, to colonize Polynesia, in opposition to generally accepted theory that Polynesians came from their west.

Lifeboat, another small-space film by Alfred Hitchcock, is set during World War II, a collection of characters from Allied countries shipwrecked aboard a lifeboat, with one German. Much of the conflict of the crew comes from what to do with the German, especially in light of worsening conditions from lack of food or shelter.

Both Kon-Tiki and Life of Pi have extended preparatory sequences outside the boat for exposition. During the time on the boat, Life of Pi alternates to several decades in the future, where an author is interviewing the protagonist in his living room. The third small space in Life of Pi is a hospital room where the protagonist is again interviewed by representatives of a shipping company. To be much more pure for our purposes, Lifeboat takes place entirely on the boat itself, and I would say the position of the camera never goes more than 10 feet from the boat’s centre, there are not even any sort of establishing shots. Above perspective shots are common in Kon-Tiki and Life of Pi, often to highlight the isolation of the boat in a large ocean.

An initial premise of “shipwrecked” is a convenient mechanic, similar to the amnesia trope common in interactive media – it is plausible enough to the audience, yet allows the creator of the work to setup arbitrary arrangements of characters (who wouldn’t normally associate), supplies and physical environment. The confined space is then set to bake and interesting interactions between characters that may occur. These interesting interactions can be easily avoided in real life, as there’s space to simply walk away, relatively infinite resources, and authorities to appeal to. Unlike the other two works, Kon-Tiki’s crew is intentionally aboard the ship, though eventually we learn they all have surprisingly personal reasons for committing to a voyage whose success is uncertain.

Lifeboat takes place over a few days, but long enough for food and water supplies to become short, and the crew of the boat to lose hope. Kon-Tiki and Life of Pi take place over months, the crew going through several stages of increased hope and despair. A major point of discussion among the crew is what to do with the German, with people either wanting to kill him, and some wanting to keep him as a prisoner of war. It is curious that the latter treat the decision as outside their authority, as the universe is larger than the boat, and their confinement is temporary. Some authority outside this pocket universe will make the decision, later, and somehow that is more ethical than making the decision in the present.

Unlike the confined spaces of the first part of this series, which felt like prisons, the boats in this part are more nuanced. They are prisons, but they are also life-giving. The sea around them is not immediately threatening, and in other circumstances the protagonists would go for a swim, but the boat is that which allows them to stay alive. Few of the characters are afraid of water, with the notable exception of the captain of the Kon-Tiki, who is unable to swim. It seems this is meant to underline his conviction that their voyage will be a success.

The primary actions of people in Kon-Tiki is to maintain the boat itself. There is actually a great deal of work to be done in such a small space, and it is rather inspiring to an interaction designer, from checking the security of the lashed-together logs, to doing a walk around the boat to look for fish, to check lines, to go inside to look at maps. On the other hand, most of the actions in Lifeboat are interpersonal, from trying to guess the contents of others’ pockets, to performing an amputation, to breaking up a fight, to tying suicidal people down. In Life of Pi, it is a mix of both, the tiger is a threat the protagonist must maneuver around and avoid, while maintaining the lifeboat and his sub-life-boat.

Curiously, the protagonist of Life of Pi must keep the tiger well-fed, as otherwise he is afraid the tiger will try to swim out to him in his little raft out of desperation. So, he fishes, and collects fresh water in a tarp on the boat. This is even more interesting, as several times during the exposition, it is pointed out that the protagonist and his family are strict vegetarians. So he must kill animals to feed another being, so it won’t kill him. This is fairly emotionally intense for the protagonist.
However, the tiger does actually jump out, and the protagonist jumps aboard the lifeboat. Now their positions are inversed, and the tiger is unable to get aboard, but the protagonist takes pity on him, feeling the need to still rescue him.
The protagonist explicitly states later that taking care of the tiger, the constant danger, kept him alive, and this subtly ties into the religious themes in the move later.

life of pi boat ticks

Changes over time are shown differently: In Lifeboat, people become more lethargic, sunburned, and familiar – in one case, a marriage proposal and in another case two people who were formerly strangers are straight-up making out in the corner of the boat. In Life of Pi, the protagonist and tiger get unnervingly thin, while supplies dwindle down. The protagonist also mark tallies on the side of the boat (side note: marking a day tally would be a cool save mechanic). To contrast, the passage of time for the Norwegians in Kon-Tiki isn’t presented as dire; they merely get sweet manly blonde sea-beards.


One interesting spatial feature of boats is that interesting things can happen underneath. In both Life of Pi, and Kon-Tiki, something in the water dramatically disappears under one side and then reappears on the other. In both cases, there is a tense scrambling as people run to the other side of the environment. In Kon-Tiki, there is an insanely intense action/combat/rescue sequence where one of the crew members falls over board, while covered in blood, and sharks are around. This is especially notable as all of the 5 people still aboard are engaged in something important simultaneously (fetching a harpoon, steadying a line, pointing at the shark, etc.). There is lots of juicy mechanical stuff to do.


Both Life of Pi and Kon-Tiki had a little over half an hour of exposition outside the small space before they got down to business (from the viewpoint of this review). Kon-Tiki could likely have started directly on the boat, but I feel it would be hard for Life of Pi’s narrative for this to. However, most expository scenes happen without much motion (next to a tiger cage in a zoo, around a family dinner table, in a cafeteria), so it would be feasible to establish the experience of the protagonist with cuts in between.

Stray Notes:

Life of Pi

- Hyena is an aggressive, punk element, though it just seems to be alarmed (it panic-vomits). But then, in a horrifying turn, it eats the Zebra alive, while the protagonist looks on, helplessly, in fear of being hurt himself. The Zerba carcass is left half-eaten on the boat, horrifyingly.
- Through agility, the orangutan avoids the same fate, initially, but then is killed by the Hyena as well.

- Protagonist finds an adorably illustrated manual of the boat. He returns to this many times later, and it contains much practical advice for surviving in the boat for a long period of time. He mentally adds his own passages, trying to normalize his absurd situation (e.g. [If you are sharing the boat with a giant tiger...])

- The protagonist discovers the Tiger can get seasick, and does Pavlovian training with a whistle and turning the boat away and into the waves to moderate how much it rocks. The goal being to have the tiger training the tiger to hate the harsh whistle.

- Both the tiger and the protagonist get noticeably thinner over time. Ways to show change without motion through space, like this, are important to note.
- Makes marks on the side of the boat to pass the days.
- Nice scene where both the protagonist and the tier try to catch parts of a school of flying fish that pass by, fighting for them. Here, foreign elements are invading the space. Finally, the protagonist breaks down and eats fish meat.

- Seeing the tiger, who is normally an extremely alarming badass, terrified of water during a storm, is very disturbing. It feels like it is Not How Things Should Be. Wrong, Against the nature of things. The canary in the coal mine for how fucked things actually are. Later, even when not in the storm, the increasingly docility of the formerly extremely dangerous tiger shows just how fucked things are.

- (Spoilers) of course, all the animals on board are allegories for real people who are at each other’s throats. This is a disgusting, messy truth, less like a fairy tales than if they were all animals, even though the amount of death and suffering is the same. As the sole witness of what happened, it is the responsibility of the protagonist to tell the story, but also to suffer the story. The telling is the suffering is the living.


- The raft has a small interior, which is a nice contrast to the outside, which acts as a sort of wraparound verandah. People on opposite sides of the raft are unable to see each other directly, which could provide some environmental variety (and privacy).

- There is a strong concern that the boat itself will not survive the trip. The setting as a flawed character, who will likely die, is a strong theme. In fact, when they finally do arrive in Polynesia, it is a crash landing, and the raft falls apart, having served its purpose.

- At one point, a smaller raft is drifted away from the main rift for the purposes of photography. How crazy lonely that would feel, to leave your already small space.


- At the beginning, the lifeboat is surrounded by the wrecked contents of a ship, and the crew is grabbing a bunch of random items out of the water if they want it! A tennis racket has been added to your inventory! A camera! Random shit you don’t need, but it’s floating by, so might as well grab it! People are excited about the stuff they saved from the wreck (starting inventory). One guy managed to save some cigars, which he is proud of.

- Another failing raft comes over and dumps its occupants on board. Both the inventory grabbing and the second raft are nice ways to add stuff to an otherwise static environment.

- One lady comes aboard, shellshocked from a previous incident, with a drowned baby she refuses to let go. The crew conspires (out of earshot, which is damn difficult on a tiny lifeboat) to get rid of the baby when she is asleep. SMALL SPACE DRAMA CAN GET PRETTY REAL.

- The mother jumped overboard over night, apparently. It is apparent from the taut rope overboard. May be possible someone witnessed it, but didn’t stop her.

- One African American on board. He’s asked his opinion on the German, and quips “Oh, I get to vote too!?”. Ah, early US racism comedy.

- British guy has previous shipwrecked experience. Was on there for 43 days, but less optimistic about this one, given lack of supplies. Has that stout British upper air sense of self reliance and keeping calm (don’t say or think it).

- Soon-to-be amputee quickly downs a ton of alcohol as they prepare to cut off his leg. Begins laughing, hitting on everything with legs. Which includes in asking for a kiss from the journalist, just after doing a sad monologue about how his girlfriend back home may not take him back if he has a missing leg. It’s pretty cute.

- Like 5 people have to keep their hands around a flame to keep it lit enough to heat up the amputation knife. A nice physical body cooperation moment.

- One woman’s sense that their chance of survival is unclear makes her want to find someone on the crew to confess that she had an affair with a married man before. No one cares.

- The German has a secret compass. An inventory item you can only use while out, but need to hide from other crew members in close proximity, is pretty darn interesting.

- Two guys start playing poker, purely based on IOUs of money, on cards they made themselves by tearing paper and writing ink on it. The IOUs are carved in the wood of the boat with a knife. The amounts of money gets insane, like $80,000, based on the IOU marks. At a critical moment, a bunch of cards are blown overboard, mostly the hand of the guy claiming to be the winner. A fight breaks out.

- (Spoilers) Initially, the one German survivor is excused of his actions because he’s “just some German”. Later, they find out he is the captain of the U-boat. Does this make him more responsible? No, he was just following orders, like everyone else. But then it turns out he was hiding food, and a compass, and steering the boat in a wrong direction! And then, at the end, another, extremely young German comes aboard. Should we trust him or is he just a kid?

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Studying Narratives in Small Spaces, Part 1

At the Augmented & Virtual Reality roundtables at GDC 2015, there was consensus that moving a player through space made them uneasy. While in the future, I’m sure we’ll discover interesting tricks to ease the transition, what if we aren’t worried about that, and instead an entire interactive narrative experience happens in a single space?

This multi-part series examines inspirations for interactive narrative design in small spaces. These reviews are going to at times sound oddly mechanistic, as the goal is to focus on moments of potential narrative agency and player interaction. There is a separate movement towards Virtual Reality film, where one would semi-passively take in narrative in a virtual environment, but, as usual, I’m more interested in the interactive stuff.

In the first part of this series, we’ll look at two mysteries, Rear Window and The Lady Vanishes, both by Alfred Hitchcock, and one movie that is an action-mystery (?), Snowpiercer.

Rear Window
rear window

A photojournalist is confined to his apartment after breaking his legs. Bored, and becoming stir-crazy, he uncharacteristically fills his time by watching his neighbours out his rear window. Based on subtly suspicious behaviour, he suspects one of his neighbours of murder, and has to convince his able-bodied social connections to investigate for him. The entirety of the viewpoint of the story takes places in the protagonist’s apartment.

The Lady Vanishes
the lady vanishes

A tourist is returning from a vacation to her native England. After she bumps her head while boarding a train, she is aided by a plain older woman. When the tourist awakes from a nap, the old woman is gone, and no one on the train remembers seeing her. The tourist begins to doubt her memory while scouring the train and its occupants for any evidence of the old woman, all while accused of being delusional. The film begins with a little under half an hour of character exposition with an ensemble cast in a hotel before we board the train, and spend most of the time going back and forth between three cars (dining, cabin, cargo).


A fully self-contained train is in constant motion on a track around an Earth plunged into freezing by an apocalypse 17 years previously. The train is about 1000 cars long, and arranged in social hierarchy from the poor people in the tail section, to the rich at the front. The story follows the leader of a revolt starting in the tail section, trying to gain access to the less-crowded front sections. We follow the protagonist from the rear of the train all the way to its front.

In all cases, there is a sense that the confinement in the environment is unnatural and unsettling, and that what the protagonist witnesses or believes may not be the truth. This is made worse by their confinement; they are restricted from verifying facts for themselves by the environment; in this way, the environment is self is a secondary antagonist.

Both The Lady Vanishes and Snowpiercer take place on trains, however individual scenes, whether action-oriented or not, all take place in single cars. To be practical, you could start each positionally-tracked VR scene in a new car, and then have whatever transition you’d like between them, as they are relatively rare. The individual train cars in both movies have a drastically different feel to them, especially Snowpiercer, whose train cars sport a high variety of style.

In The Rear Window, the protagonist is trapped in his space, most of the time in his wheelchair, and all the action happens outside, him being the primary witness and powerlessly and tenuously interacting with the outside.

Both Rear Window and Snowpiercer take place over an extended period of time, while The Lady Vanishes only skips time when the protagonist dozes off. The initial tension of the first two comes from being stuck, but in The Lady Vanishes, it comes from a disappearance and that everyone else on the train believes the protagonist is mentally ill. Because the space is confined and very finite, the protagonist asserts that the missing person must be on the train, as it hasn’t stopped, and begins an exhaustive search for clues.

In our regular non-dramatic lives, the average human being spends much of their time in confined spaces, whether at home or at work. To contrast, the primary action in most interactive narratives is to move through space; in interactive narrative where you’re a silent protagonist, moving your body may be one of the only ways you can express yourself and advance the plot. I couldn’t find the reference, but Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw has previously expressed the work of video game players as moving characters around on dolly carts, shoving them together in the right combinations to induce conversations that further the plot (in his video game analysis show Zero Punctuation).

In both The Lady Vanishes and Rear Window, the protagonists have a strong conviction which everyone else doubts, and they at times themselves doubt, but they slowly bring people over to their side. I’m not well-versed enough in Hitchcock to know if this is common in his works. I wonder how it would be possible to have self-doubt of a conviction in an interactive mystery narrative. Usually, the way it goes is “The thing that happened is X, collect the evidence and (if it’s undetermined) figure out who did it”. The narrative push of the game would cease to exist if the player/protagonist determined that the result is “everything is fine, nothing to worry about”, as all the other characters in the Hitchcock mysteries insist. Curiously, in both cases, if the characters gave up their convictions, no harm would come to them, as the problem they’re trying to solve in no way directly affects them, and they only come in harm’s way through their insistence. I like the agenda Hitchcock is peddling, though it could be construed as “your hunch convictions are always correct no matter how much evidence you get against them, initially”.

The interactions between the protagonist and their environments vary significantly. In The Lady Vanishes, most of the interaction is social, though one clue-hunting sequence suddenly turns, surprisingly, into a combat sequence. Snowpiercer, after exposition, is mostly combat, with breaks where a series of increasingly important secondary protagonists will pontificate, then be disposed of, oddly reminiscent to the progress of any *-Shock game. In Rear Window, the apartment is static and safe, while dynamic and dangerous events happen outside it, until a break of this established pattern in the finale. The protagonist has social interactions inside the apartment (convincing visitors of his convictions, other storyline interactions) and has to observe the outside very carefully for clues, using both his binoculars and telephoto lens. At one point, the protagonist has to direct the movements of another character trying to escape the antagonist in a Scooby-Doo like sequence across several stories.

rear window Scooby Doo

In the modern day, texting would be used for coordination, but here it is through aggressive gesturing. Curiously, the characters that the protagonist is directing across the way don’t always listen to him, and take risks even when he explicitly instructs them not to. This loose control of another character, with their own impulses, would be cool to explore in an interactive medium, and it supplements the loss of control that the main character already feels. The final interaction available to the protagonist is no doubt designed to comically highlight their helplessness yet again: a long wooden scratch stick to get underneath his cast. The act of scratching is shown to be the most physically strenuous task of his day. Designing this with a quicktime event would no doubt excite David Cage.

Stray Notes:

Rear Window

- A series of observed events occur, without any verbalization, where the main character dozes off and wakes up during a single night, and sees the comings and goings of people. It is uncertain how much time passes between these dozings. In one case, we’re shown a brief scene while the protagonist is shown to be asleep, an unsettling break in the consistent first-person viewpoint for the first time in the movie (around the 36 minute mark). This is the only moment in the film where the viewers see something that the protagonist doesn’t.
- The line “why don’t I slip into something more comfortable” appears. It’s too early in the history of film, so this comes off as completely innocent to the trope. Also, “please make me a sandwich”.
- The movie starts with him watching a lady across the way dancing to herself in pink lingerie.
- The protagonist is afraid of marriage, which is metaphorically treated as imprisonment, like being stuck in this apartment.
- The theme of captivity comes back again, where the protagonist and his fiancee are in love, but captive in their own worlds. His in always wanting to travel, her in her high-end New York lifestyle.
- People are able to enter the protagonist’s space without his warning or consent (other people seem to have keys, or the door is unlocked). This is pretty unnerving.
- Later, the protagonist convinces someone, who is able to actually walk around in the world, that something is up that needs general investigating. Since this is the 50s, they communicate by landline. Interestingly, were this a video game, the player would take the role of the person moving around in the world accomplishing errands, while a disembodied voice gave them assignments. In fact, the character on the phone who is out doing stuff in this movie refers to their tasks as “assignments”.
- The protagonists’ camera flash is used as a weapon (Hey there Beyond Good & Evil).
- The protagonist looking into other people’s windows, through frames into private lives, feels very much like the gaze through the frame of a film into the character’s lives themselves. The Rear Window is about film, duuuuuuude.

The Lady Vanishes

the lady vanishes 2

- This is the first appearance of Charters and Caldicott, two British characters obsessed with cricket, regardless of the gravity of their current situation. They went on to appear in several films and their own TV series.
- Nice clue mechanic: the protagonist recalls that the missing (and possibly non-existent) old woman wrote her name on a window in the dining car. She tries to find this again, but writing on a window turns out to be a short-lived form of proof. This is a nice moment for the protagonist to convince herself that she is not insane (maybe), but still insufficient to convince anyone else.

snowpiercer ponty

- The poor people (in the back of the train) have no idea what goes on in the forward cars, or even what they look like. There’s one clever bit when the train turns around a tight corner, and people can see each other (and shoot at each other) from several cars apart.
- More so than The Lady Vanishes, the cars’ dimensions are all identical, but the difference of their interiors highlights the massive social differences in the train society.

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Real For The Very First Time

Putting on academic tweed jacket, sandals and socks…

In 1936, German cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote an essay entitled The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (entire text translated here). This post is an updated, and more specific view on that topic.

In summary, there was an interesting debate at the beginning of the 20th century among philosophers about how the definition of the real would change during the advent of artificial reproduction of sensual experience. The first case was photography — the proof of an experience came to mean a static visual representation of it. Something was real, verifiable, mattered, only if you were able to take a photograph of it.

Since the visual is such an easy sense to capture and share, i.e. reproduce, it came to matter more than other senses of an experience. Closer to the present, anyone sufficiently internet literate will recognize how easy it is to fake imagery via Photoshop, and that a photo is no longer real proof of anything. However, a photo as the standard of reality remains.

The worry, of some, is that the artificial becomes more real than real. Of course, you shouldn’t be worried about it, as you don’t have that much control over any of that anyway. It is interesting, however, that a photograph of an event from far away is more important than an eye-witness experience from close-up. In the social media-scape, there is sometimes the sensation that an event is only able to be widely disseminated if its sensations are sensationalizable.

Eventually, I’m sure we’ll bring other dimension (2D->3D cough cough) and other senses (Smell-o-vision) on board to the easily reproducible, and thus actually real, experiences.

Really, what I’m saying is that Mr. Seymour above isn’t “not real”; by getting 3D scanned. In fact, he has become real for the first time.

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An Illustrating Example of Improv

I’m finalizing my PhD Thesis on interaction design for improv. This is a slightly-embellished example of something that actually happened. Yes, a mouse ran across the stage in the middle of an improv set and the performers all reacted in different ways and my mind exploded in curiosity watching it unfold.

Here is a example from an improvised set I observed in the Savannah Room in Toronto in Fall 2008, as part of the Impatient Theatre Company’s Harold Night:

A group of 5 performers are in the middle of a longform improv set. Two of them (A,B) are performing onstage, as an injury lawyer speaking to a lumberjack. Three others (C,D,E) watch from the sides.

C sees an opportunity to bring the show in a new direction. C steps on stage, tapping B on the shoulder (the standard Tag-Out coordinating gesture). B leaves the stage, and A retains his character (the injury lawyer), while C assumes a new character (a potter) and a scene between A and C begins.

After a short period of time, D perceives that A and C’s scene has become stale, and performs a Sweep (another standard coordinating gesture). A and C step off the stage. D steps on stage and begins speaking “I have gathered you all here in the town square…”, implying that she is beginning a group scene. All the performers step on stage, to support the scene, except B. D begins a serious speech about workplace safety, while B acts as a heckling dissenter (a different character from the injury lawyer she played before).

At this time, a real mouse runs across the stage, where all the performers are able to see it. Their reactions differ significantly:

• A and D panic and run off the stage, losing their character.
• C and E pretend not to see the mouse, and hold fast to their characters, attempting to continue the scene.
• B, in character, starts complaining about the lack of cleanliness in the town square.

Seeing that the scene has gone off the rails, C steps forward and signals to the technician to cut the lights, ending the group’s performance.

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This Is Why I Still Don’t Have Internet: Cable Gore Porn

Valencia Cable Gore

This represents the phone/DSL box of the 10 units in my building. Each cable has a business card of a different technician attached to it; implying that if you’re making a change, you’re supposed to CALL ME FIRST. So, if you want to make any electrical change, you have to get, like, a half-dozen people on *71 speakerphone while you do surgery on this beast. This beast, in the underbelly of my house, oozes a curiously beautiful Kowloon-esque aesthetic. Normally I’d just try to tackle this a little myself, but there’s like a 50% chance I’d cut someone’s connection while doing so.

Technician is supposed to arrive tomorrow morning.

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Physique changes upon moving to San Francisco


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X-mas travel plans 2014

Starting and Ending in San Francisco:


On one of these flights I have a stopover in Vancouver, and it isn’t the one that goes through Victoria.

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Piracy Attempted to Save Dubloons; Deemed Infeasible

The housing market in San Francisco is 110% bananas. Here’s a map of the average 1 Bedroom price from February 2013. Here’s a more recent map that also covers outside the San Francisco peninsula. The gist is that $2800/month is lowest you can reasonably get for a 1 bedroom apartment these days. What sort of crazy scheme would you need to go cheaper?

Thanks to a post on the /r/sanfrancisco subreddit, I heard of a 91-foot-long sailboat pirate ship for sale for the cheap price of $50,000. I went into this as a joke, with the idea that this had a “5% chance of making sense”. The ad described a “Captain’s Quarters” with a Queen Bed, and two staterooms, one featuring a bunk bed. I figured I could rent it out, possibly AirBnB SeaBnB. In an email to the current owner, I said I was looking into using the boat as a landlord Sea Lord. The engine is seized, but I didn’t imagine needing to have it operational for a few years anyway, so bringing it to a maneuverable state was ideally a long-term project. However, upon seeing the boat, and doing a little finance spreadsheet whiz bang, with the cheapest liveaboard berthing fees of $9/foot/month coming to $819/month alone, I couldn’t see a way to make it make financial sense. Maybe if I didn’t have student debt, and didn’t mind if most of my free time was taken up with boat maintenance.

I have finished discussing the financial infeasibility of owning a pirate ship and we’re going to start talking about the pirate ship. Here’s the original ad:

We are selling our beloved 91-foot square-rigger, the Sultana, named for the original brigantine Sultana of which it’s a replica, built 1768 in Boston.

We lived aboard for many years, raised two children. We hosted events — Pirate Parties, receptions — dockside for years, and chartered throughout the Bay, active in the 1980s into the 90s, always attracting quite a bit of TV and newspaper coverage, out of Alameda, then Brisbane Marina, where it is now. Sadly, we had to move away for work.

The boat is extremely comfortable and roomy for living — also a great boat for a party.
It’s not a single-hander, but is very satisfying and exciting to sail.
* It’s 91′ overall; 57′ on deck.
* Built 1979 – 1985. Ferro cement hull. Composite overall — ferro cement, steel, wood.
* 9 sails in new condition (full set)
* From aft to forward: Large saloon. Then, dining area to port and full bar to starboard. Two steps down and Galley to port, head (w/shower) to starboard. Then, two double-bunked staterooms, both port and starboard. Next, Captain’s quarters, with sitting room on port side and queen bed starboard. Lastly, the forecastle.
* 3″-thick mahogany dining table seats 8 or 9.
* Aft saloon includes a player piano.

# Displacement approx. 60 tons.
# Beam approx. 20 feet.
# Groco head, should be replaced.
# 2 refrigerators, 1 freezer.
# Engine is GM diesel (needs to be replaced, as does rudder.)
# Elaborate carvings (some visible in photographs), wood figurehead, wormed, parceled and served rigging to replicate the original style. Needs some new ratlines and lanyards, and some general renewal.

If you would like notoriety and attention, this ship will supply it. Just cleaning the deck on an afternoon, you will be inundated by passers by and interested parties.

Asking $50,000 but will consider all offers.

(Was advised to add the word “Sailboat,” and so there it is!)

And here’s some pictures:

Here’s a scan with the Structure Sensor:

Interesting anecdote: met the now-mid-20s lady who lived on the ship until she was 6. Said she wasn’t aware that other families didn’t live on boats until much later. Lucky!

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Moving to San Francisco; joining Occipital

Two days ago, I finished the second-to-last draft of my thesis and, a couple hours later, my first full watch-through of Star Trek: The Next Generation. And now it’s time for another transition!


I’ve lived in Toronto for 6 years while doing grad school. I got to participate a ton in the improv, theatre, and nerd communities and they are all fantastic. Alas, I’m moving on to somewhere else. Pending US VISA stuff, I’ll be getting on a truck with my stuff and navigator/housemate Sean in a week and a half and heading to San Francisco to work for the amazing company Occipital.

Occipital makes the Structure Sensor, a small-format depth sensor that currently fits on the back of an iPad for scanning people and interior architecture. They ran a wildly successful Kickstarter almost a year ago, and have one of the creators of OpenCV on their board of directors. During my interview process we talked about some of their future plans in the pipe, and I’m very excited. I’m their 19th employee, and my formal title will be Spatial Interaction Engineer. I’m looking forward to developing really cool interactions that take advantage of having spatial knowledge about our bodies and the world around us.

Coming out of grad school and figuring out what to do next is pretty bewildering. I’ll write more on that when I have real hindsight. While I like developing cool, new stuff, exploiting unusual sensors and extending art practices, I’ve always had trouble with academic writing. It just isn’t as enjoyable or enriching to me as crafting something new and interesting, which is why I got into academia in the first place. I’m into creative writing (like this blog), but academic writing has always felt like hard work, like I’m wading through a complex network of academic frameworks, justifications, and citations. This would be fine if writing or documentation was part of the job, but if you’re an academic professionally, it’s the primary way your worth is measured (I might be putting my foot in my mouth if I somehow change my mind and end up back in academia a years from now). During grad school, I’d find myself procrastinating writing often, and getting depressed over it. I have much to thank of the post-docs at my lab for forcing teaching me to manage my time better. I thought of trying to be an independent developer or artist for a bit, but I’m coming out of grad school with debt, and I’d like to get my hands dirty on creating for new technology as quickly as possible. I interviewed at quite a few places, and I loved the vibe of the people at Occipital, and their excitement about really affecting change in how the space around us is understood and manipulated. I leap-frogged into interviewing with Occipital after doing contract work writing a 3D sensor driver for Globacore, a Toronto-based video game company. It was a sweet deal.

Writing a PhD is an endurance slog. You can’t hero through it in a day. Here’s my commits to it in the last year. I’ll talk more about this later, when it’s done and publicly available.
phd_thesis github stats

If you’re based in Toronto, and want to hang out before I head off, let me know! I’ll probably be announcing a goodbye thing in a couple days.

Onwards and Upwards,

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Books that Stuck with Me

I meant to assemble ten (10) works of fiction or non-fiction that had been influential to me at some point. This proved hard, and for a while I tried to rank them so I could eliminate any 11+. I settled on splitting my life thus far into 3 periods: Childhood, Adolescence and Adulthood, and the books that were influential to me therein. The edges of these periods are pretty soft-edged, and I think, for me, I consider my adolescence going until 19 or 20 or something.


Collaboration – Mark C. Jarvis
This is a pretty obscure short story. I listened to its audio version on a booktape my Dad gave me. A lot. So much so, I can’t be sure if it is objectively good, but I feel like it’s pretty great. Several researchers discover that cetaceans can not only perceive the 3D world from audio returned from an echolocation, but can also project the 3D audio that represents such a return, and that is their method of communication, i.e. happiness = the image of a fish entering and being digested in a stomach. The researchers happen on a dolphin that is a wandering bard. Cultural exchange occurs. There’s a lot about this that was formative to me.

My Old Man and the Sea: A Father and Son Sail Around Cape Horn – David & Daniel Hays
Another book on tape my Dad made for me; a story of a father and son that built a sailboat and sailed around Cape Horn. From this, a got a love of travel, which I’ve done lots of, solitary thought, which I’ve also done lots of, and sailboats, which I haven’t done as much.

Extraterrestrials: A Field Guide for Earthlings – Terence Dickinson
This book is absolutely fantastic. I don’t think one should worry too hard whether it is grounded in science, but the book follows the pattern of presenting several possible worlds that are slightly different from earth, positing the kind of life forms that would live there, and then hiring an artist to draw them in a very serious, polished way that you could imagine illustrations in any natural field guide. Really formative for me.

The Search for Snout – Bruce Coville
Bruce Coville wrote several books that I read while on the emotional & adventurous roller coaster of being a young guy, and his characters often went through personally intense moments, which were obviously fantastical, but seemed so damn relatable in that clever way of knowing that young people will more easily think about their own lot if told indirectly about it, say, involving several humans and aliens working together to find an old friend.

Time and Again – Clifford Simak
On the side of the road in Surrey, in the suburbs of Vancouver, I came across a large cardboard box of sci-fi paperbacks. I don’t know where these came from, whether someone decided they outgrew them, or someone died, but this massively influenced my early development. This particular book was a formative book that I definitely read before the right age when one is supposed to. I’ve probably read it about 6 times in my life, and might again. 1000s of years into the future or so, an author makes a stand for the rights of artificial humans, which isn’t that interesting of itself, except that he finds out that he will write a book about it, before he even knew he had an opinion on it, thanks to some wibbly wobbly time travel stuff. Manifest Destiny as a philosophical idea appears. Good brain food. I should read it again.

Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon – Spider Robinson
Another book from my found cardboard box stash. It introduced me to alternative forms of non-hard-sci-fi, made me realize that good fiction should enable interesting ways of examining concrete life experiences. Spider Robinson isn’t my favourite author, but I’ve read many, many of his books since. My love of puns and wordplay is directly traceable to this book.


Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) – Kim Stanley Robinson
Another book series I read really early, and then had to re-read later to properly get. I should probably read it again. These books started my decade-long aspiration to become an astronaut. I’ve since decided I’m not going to pursue the astronaut thing unless it’s colonization, not exploration, on the agenda. This book felt like hard sci-fi in a good way; focusing on the people. There’s a passage in there where a ship psychologist draws out a map where he sees the personality of everyone on the ship fitting in.

Calculating God – Robert J. Sawyer
Like The Search for Snout, this book seemed to hit me in just the right way, emotionally. I’ve since read lots more of Robert J. Sawyer’s work. I appreciate his work both because the character’s lives seem to be honest and imperfect, despite working, often, in a fantastical situation. And it’s almost always Can-Con.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Douglas Adams
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is great, but it feels like several little scenes that are sketches on their own. I think the Dirk Gently books are far superior, as holistically, everything combines together to the end (into a literal symphony in this book). Damn, what a great book, which I need to read again. The situation with the couch stuck in the hallway is something I’ve always wanted to do a research project on.

Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein
A great perspective-distorting book that was pretty influential to me. It’s odd that, in the modern era, sections could definitely be considered backwards, definitely misogynist, but it influenced me in thinking of other ways to be and live.

The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco
I can trace my love of libraries and their architecture to this book. I was introduced to the movie first, which we watched in my undergrad Semiotics class. A good mystery book set in a monastery, before it was generally accepted that people can learn about the world by reasoning about it. A lost book of Aristotle’s Poetics, on Comedy, is a major plot point and got me interested in the philosophy of comedy. I’ve read a few of Umberto Eco’s books since, notably totally failing to finish Foucault’s Pendulum. Baudolino is pretty good.

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
Definitely my favourite book. I think I’ve read it 3 or 4 times. It feels like a British Comedy, written by an American, with it’s deconstruction of bureaucrat thinking. It’s very, very funny – I have memories of dry heaving laughter during the first parts of the book. It’s non-linear narrative made James Joyce’s books more palatable when I got to them later. While the Rome sequence in Catch-22 is very depressing, the book ends on such a hopeful note I get a sense that the entrappings of bureaucracy are always, eventually, defeatable.

Impro for Storytellers – Keith Johnstone
I think Jim Davies is responsible for putting this book in my hands. I had performed improv for 3 or 4 years at this point, and for at least a year of that I was in a weekly show. This book really opened up analyzing the structure of improv scenes as a philosophy for me, and it all started coming together in my mind. An astonishing amount of theatre practice, especially unscripted theatre practice, is only passed down in an oral tradition, since there is never a need to write it down. I think that Charna Halpern and Del Close’s Truth in Comedy is a much better book, but it didn’t influence me as much by the time I got to it.


The Satyricon – Petronius
The timelessness of some of the classic comedy works is amazing. I’m also a big fan of Aristophanes, but I still think the Satyricon is a more impressive work. It doesn’t have to invoke animal metaphors (no problem with that, of course) to do its comedy. It’s just 2 dudes one a goofy adventure. It’s American Pie. It’s the under-rated Dude Where’s My Car? in ancient Rome. It’s great.

The Cyberiad – Stanisław Lem
Lem writes science fiction that feels like a fairy tale, justifying plot events by using scientific terminology, but in a hand-wavey way that lets you know it’s all for fun, but in a way that doesn’t feel offensive or stupid. I’m sure Stanisław Lem could write a script for The Core that would actually be good. His short stories are fall and full of ideas, and are great meditative brain food.

The City & The City – China Miéville
One could criticize this book for being high-concept: a murder plot MacGuffin set in a city that is actually two legally-separated cities, in legally different countries. The cities are separated culturally, not spatially, and occupants of either are able to size each other up and tell, by clothes or posture, what city they are in, and whether they are allowed to interact. This gave me some interesting perspective of the urban and social spaces I find myself in, such as standing on top of a glass skyscraper in India in a white-collared shirt and staring down at a slum. These sort of separated situations are not wrong inherently, certainly, just interesting to be aware of.

Schild’s Ladder – Greg Egan
Catch-22 is my favourite book, but Greg Egan is my favourite author. Schild’s Ladder is the second book of his I read, and the one that caught me. Permutation City was the first, but it left me feeling oddly depressed. I’d like to think of Greg Egan’s books, usually dealing with semi-artificial minds, as their own genre of fiction (mindpunk?). The moment in Schild’s Ladder that really caught me is when two agender lovers, finally undressing for the first time, discover the genitals of their artificial bodies are undergoing transformations to figure out a way to fit together, as unique snowflakes that represent each other, but also the relationship they share. That and the theoretical math foundations in the books is great. If you want a more palatable start to Greg Egan, Quarantine contains all the usual bells and whistles without being too confusing to the uninitiated.

Understanding Comics – Scott McCloud
This book gave me an appreciation for three things: (1) Visual communication, (2) Different ways to structure narrative, and (3) Concise explanations using the thing you’re explaining. #3 is the most-lauded part of this book. McCloud describes comics while drawing himself running around and point at different parts of the page. It’s as clever and illustrative as the definition of “Circular Reference” in a Computer Science dictionary pointing to “see Reference, Circular”. For any talks I do where I’m presented an technology I developed, I try to make as much of the talk a live demo as possible (I did this for my talk on LACES at CHI 2014)

Cryptonomicon & The Baroque Cycle – Neal Stephenson
I devour Stephenson’s extremely high-detailed descriptions of people, processes, events and ideas with voracity and endurance that no other author can match. Snow Crash is a great intro book to him. I’m currently in the midst of Reamde. One thing authors, or artists in general can do, is point to something we consider mundane, accepted, that we are used to passing over, and say “let me talk to you for a bit about why this is interesting”. This is Neal Stephenson. I gobble that shit up.

Y: The Last Man – Brian K. Vaughan & Pia Guerra
The first graphic novel series I really, really liked. I’m reading Vaughan’s Saga now and it is also excellent.

The Road to Mars – Eric Idle
Man, there’s lots of books on this list that have a “theory of comedy” as their theme. This is another one, combined with science fiction. I’d like to think that if I turned into a novelist somehow, this book most resembles the one I’d write. Two comedians with a spaceship of their own are travelling across the solar system doing comedy shows while on the run from the law and a terrorist organization. Interspersed are chapters from the perspective of their C3PO-like robot butler companion, who is working on a thesis on comedy, and questioning whether a robot could maybe, one day, be funny. If you liked Firefly or Cowboy Bebop, a bunch of different characters stuck in a tiny ship, you will absolutely love this book. This is all abstracted to another level as this book is intended as the apocrypha documents of a writer a generation after the main events in the novel, who is trying to rewrite what actually happened. And there’s a zero-G sex scene. This book has everything.

JPod – Douglas Coupland
I watched the TV show before the book. And liked it so much I read the book, and found it was entirely different.The characters and their starting positions are the same, but how the plot follows diverges, and both directions are reasonable. I’ve never found such a satisfying split in other works. It’s like Coupland put the effort into the character creation (the characters are great), and then set them loose, improvisationally writing plot. The characters, employees of a large video game studio that is blatantly EA in Burnaby, feel so obviously Canadian, but it’s hard to put your finger on why they do.

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